Defending Wakesports Boats

Gabriel Jabbour and Peter MacCallum are taking different routes in two states to change public sentiment
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Once zebra mussels are introduced to a lake, it doesn’t take long for the invasive species to overwhelm it.

Once zebra mussels are introduced to a lake, it doesn’t take long for the invasive species to overwhelm it.

Gabriel Jabbour is not the type of guy to shy away from a difficult situation. As the owner of Tonka Bay Marina on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, when he felt as if some of his customers were being blamed for something that wasn’t their fault, he decided to act.

“I saw fishermen getting attacked for moving [zebra mussels] from one place to another,” says Jabbour, who worked with a partner from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to show that it was wakesports boats, not fishing boats, that were more cause for concern when it came to zebra mussels. “People just assumed.”

Peter MacCallum heard similar concerns about wakesports boats this past January, while at a hearing in Concord, N.H., about legislation that would create a commission to look at the impact of wakesports boats on that region’s waterways.

“This public hearing was pretty heavy-sided,” MacCallum says. “There’s a groundswell of support against wake boats. It’s my responsibility as a retailer to engage in the conversation and make sure that the legislature knows facts and research-based science.”

In both states, the most serious concern about wake­sports boats is the growth and transportation of invasive species such as the zebra mussel, which critics say the boats transport from place to place as they take on and then dump ballast water. The added weight from ballast is used to create a better wake for riding. Other complaints include the potential advance of shoreline erosion from the boats’ large wakes, and safety issues the boats may cause when kids are swimming nearby.

The debates that Jabbour and MacCallum are witnessing halfway across the country from each other make clear that the concerns are serious, and that supporters of wakesports boats nationwide should be taking notice.

Minnesota researchers study how zebra mussels are transported on wakeboats.

Minnesota researchers study how zebra mussels are transported on wakeboats.

Flexing Mussels

Zebra mussels are a serious problem in the state known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Like most invasive species, they are incredibly pervasive, and their ability to reproduce would make rabbits look impotent. One expert says that if 95 percent were killed this year, they’d be back inside of three years.

Zebra mussels have no predators, and they eat the phytoplankton that the native species at the bottom of the food chain rely on. Additionally, once they establish themselves in an area, it’s expensive to remove them from  shorelines or the intake systems for power companies. From a recreational standpoint, they have sharp shells and can cut someone walking around barefoot.

Thus, anybody spreading zebra mussels around is ripe for the type of public scorn that Jabbour was seeing in Minnesota. The public believed anglers were trailering their boats from one lake to another in the same day or weekend, bringing the mussels along for the ride.

Jabbour, who is also the former mayor of Tonka Bay, Minn., engaged the marine industry and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to determine how the mussel larvae, known as veligers, were being introduced to new lakes. He partnered with Adam Doll, the department’s watercraft inspection coordinator; Doll was also working on his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota in a project he conducted through the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center. Brunswick Corp. and Jabbour provided financial and equipment support, as well as access to boats for the project.

Minnesota already has laws on its books regarding aquatic invasive species, and Doll says most recreational boaters follow them. In 2018, there were 445,000 boat inspections. “From the watercraft inspection program here, compliance rates are very good,” Doll says. “People are educated and taking the appropriate steps.”

The problem is that new infestations of zebra mussels are still being reported every year, and wakesports boats aren’t built in a way that is ideal for some solutions already in place. Doll’s research focused on the residual water that remained in boats after they were put on the trailer and all drain plugs were removed. He took most of his samples from boats at the drystack at Tonka Bay Marina within 24 hours after they were run, but he couldn’t find wakesports-boat owners who would let him sample their ballast tanks because doing so would have required disassembling the boats.

To simulate filling and draining ballast tanks, Doll used Fatsac portable bladders, which are popular for adding ballast to boats for wakesurfing. He put them in his personal boat, a Crownline 180 bowrider powered by a sterndrive.

Doll found that ballast tanks have the highest likelihood of containing veligers. He took 34 samples of standing water, and there were veligers in 33 of them.

The next highest percentage came from sterndrive propulsion systems, which show an 89 percent existence of veligers. Other samples were taken from outboards, live wells in fishing boats, foot wells on personal watercraft, splash wells on an outboard-powered boat as well as boat bilges and jet pumps, but those vessels were all below the 50-percent mark for veliger content.

Peter MacCallum is just getting started in New Hampshire.

Peter MacCallum is just getting started in New Hampshire.

From a decreased risk perspective, Doll’s team found that sterndrive engines run at an average temperature of at least 100 to 120 degrees, so they were decontaminating themselves. Doll also found that during the summer, if a boat was pulled out of the lake and sat on the trailer for a couple of days, up to 90 percent of the veligers sitting in residual water would die.

The biggest threat regarding zebra mussels came from the boat owner who puts his boat in at one lake in the morning and fills the ballast system from that body of water. He surfs with his buddies and then empties the system before pulling the boat out of the water and heading to another body of water in the same day. The repeated emptying and filling of the ballast system could move veligers among the various lakes.

To be clear, ballast systems aren’t the only way that zebra mussels can be moved. “A 12-foot duckboat moving between lakes with plants that have adult zebra mussels attached is a worse threat than a $100,000 boat with veligers,” Doll says. “It’s not uncommon to pull out strands of milfoil with hundreds of mussels attached to the stem. That’s a bigger risk than dumping veligers in a lake.”

Doll adds: “I try to get the message out that humans are the most successful vector for moving these things around, not one particular boating group.”

Jabbour now plans to make Doll’s research available to the public and industry. Doll presented his findings during an American Boat and Yacht Council summit on aquatic invasive species, and the ABYC developed a technical report with suggested guidelines for the industry.

“The thought of the technical information report was to educate the industry so they can build products that are less likely to transport aquatic invasive species,” says ABYC technical director Brian Goodwin.

Gabriel Jabbour

Gabriel Jabbour

Live Free or …

After enduring the 45-minute public hearing in New Hampshire’s state capital, MacCallum, like Jabbour in Minnesota, saw a serious problem. Out in the Granite State, MacCallum called Larry Meddock, chairman of the board of the Water Sports Industry Association.

Meddock put MacCallum in touch with lobbyist Jodi Grimbilas, president of J Grimbilas Strategic Solutions in Concord, N.H., and the WSIA helped MacCallum hire her. “Her experience is one of her greatest assets,” MacCallum says. “She’ll take someone like me, a greenhorn, and say, ‘Hey Peter, your message is not on point. You need to edit this and speak to this.’ ”

The bill in question focuses on three areas: aquatic invasive species, shoreline erosion, and the safety of swimmers and other boaters. One of the bill’s principal proponents is the New Hampshire Lakes Association, which is based in Concord and represents individuals and lake associations throughout the state.

“We have fielded phone calls from dozens of people the past few years who have experienced the high waves and the impacts on paddlers, kayakers and boats tied up at docks, and the appearance that the high waves could be eroding shorelines,” says Tom O’Brien, president of the organization.

Another major concern in New Hampshire is the same as in Minnesota: the transportation of aquatic invasive species. “Knowing what we know about the life cycle of invasive mussels, we couldn’t think of a better environment for these veligers to grow,” O’Brien says of the ballast tanks in wakesports boats. “We have people within our membership community who own and enjoy wakesports boats very much. We recognize the boats are hugely popular. We want to work with boats on the industry side, the recreational side and the environmental side to come up with reasonable measures.”

At his dealership on Northwood Lake in Epsom, N.H., MacCallum sells pontoon boats, runabouts and wakesports boats. He wants to make sure that all sides of the argument are heard.

“My determination was that the commission would be heavily biased against wakeboats,” he says, adding that he fears what’s coming could be the “first stage of being able to restrict people’s ability to have fun on the water.” He and Grimbilas drafted an amendment to make sure the commission would have equal representation.

While MacCallum recognizes that the concerns about the invasive species and shoreline erosion are legitimate, he says that non-boaters don’t see the value of being on the water, especially time spent with children, surfing or skiing.

An AIS double-whammy: zebra mussels attached to invasive plants.

An AIS double-whammy: zebra mussels attached to invasive plants.

“Our time on the water surfing in the evening is precious,” MacCallum says of his own family. “As I heard this public hearing unfold, I said to myself, there’s a lot that people don’t know. The family piece is just as important.”

MacCallum says several national organizations and boatbuilders have called to offer support and get involved, and he’s grateful for the support.“I have a business to run. I have employees and a family to enjoy, and getting involved in a government affair added a lot to my plate,” MacCallum says. “But it was something that has to happen. Marine retailers need to stick together to be successful and move our industry forward.”

As Jabbour and MacCallum continue their efforts, Jabbour hopes the added research from Doll will be put into updated ABYC standards for wakesports boats and ballast systems. MacCallum plans to work with the members of the New Hampshire commission to show them that the marine industry is listening and wants to find a way to stop the transportation of aquatic invasive species.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.

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